How Did History Forget The Cat Who Went To Space?
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You've probably heard about the first dog to go to space—the Soviet dog Laika, who died up there. But the first and only cat to go to space has been largely forgotten, even though her trip was a total success, ending with her safe return. Perhaps it was because she was French. Many of us don't remember that France was part of the space race at all, as it was neither America nor the country aiming missiles at America.
France's space program began with rockets right after World War II. By 1961, they'd graduated to sending rats in those rockets, and the logical successor to space rats was of course space cats. In 1964, France settled on sending a 5.5-pound tuxedo cat, whom they referred to as "C 341." They didn't want to name her, for fear that astronauts would get too attached. But when the media dubbed the cat "Felix," after the cartoon character, the French space agency stepped in and clarified that she was female, and so C 341 became Félicette.
On October 18, 1963, they nestled Félicette in a rocket and shot it up from a launch site in Algeria. You know how Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson went "to space" this year, but they really just reached the edge of space? Félicette reached an altitude about twice as high as those guys' ships went. She experienced weightlessness as scientists remotely monitored her vitals, then her capsule separated from the rocket and parachuted back to the ground.
The cat came back, unharmed by the journey. Two months later, though, French scientists put her down so they could study her brain. This was why France had wanted no one getting attached to her, you see.
It's possible this necropsy cursed the cat space program. Félicette was one of 14 cats training for spaceflight, but none of the others ended up going through with it. One got as far into the rocket, but the rocket launched at the wrong angle and never made it to space. Another cat got surgery to implant monitoring electrodes, but the operation left her unfit for space travel, so they retired her and turned her into a mascot.
Anyway, Félicette had proven spaceflight was safe for animals as high up in the hierarchy as cats, so it was time to move on. France shifted to sending monkeys to space because French monkeys are hilarious.
For more space animals, see also:
Top image: Ron Frazier